Debate in the Dairy Aisle: Are Plant-Based Drinks “Milk”?

This is the second article looking at plant-based milk. The first examines Plant-Based Milk vs. Cow’s Milk: What’s the Difference?

While traditional milk from a cow is still far and away the leader in the dairy case, plant-based products such as soy milk and almond milk are gaining popularity. They’re also a point of contention. Some feel we shouldn’t be able to call a drink “milk” just because it’s a white liquid. The Food and Drug Administration has been asked to make a determination.

We asked a panel of nutrition experts to weigh in on the issue:
Dr. Ann Macrina, Penn State University
Dr. Dennis Savaiano, Purdue University
Dr. Connie Weaver, Purdue University
Dr. J. Bruce German, University of California Davis

The bottom line:

The issue is far from settled, with strong feelings on both sides. Read labels to know for sure what you are buying and to know if the milks or drinks meet your expectations for nutrients, fat and calorie content.

What’s the debate all about?

Dr. Macrina: The USDA’s legal definition of milk is, “The lacteal secretion from a cow.” In theory, anything that does not meet that definition should not be called milk. So, the controversy is whether plant-based products should be allowed to be called milk.

Dr. Savaiano: If you asked people what milk is, I think most would say it is cows’ lactate that we put into containers and sell. Soy, almond and rice-based products aren’t milks – they’re drinks. They may look like milk but their nutrient composition can be quite different. Some of them can have a lot of added sugar. Some contain no calcium. It is possible to mimic the composition of cow’s milk but the consumer needs to be aware and the label will give the them the information they need.

Can you give us an example of how consumers should interpret what they see on the label?

Dr. Savaiano: Well, I’m looking at the label of an almond-based drink as we speak and I see it has no added sugar but calcium and Vitamin D have been added. You can see this beverage has been designed to be low in calories and high in calcium and vitamin D. It’s high in sodium compared to potassium, so it’s not a perfect blend compared to what cow’s milk contains. I also have a rice-based beverage label in front of me. It is low-fat and has added sugar. It has quite a bit of carbohydrate, a little bit of sodium and no calcium. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of nutrition in this drink.

Consumers should read the label very carefully. Plant-based drinks certainly can be a healthy choice but it depends on how they’re formulated.

From a nutritionist’s perspective, do you think plant-based drinks should be allowed to use the term “milk?”

Dr. Savaiano: I would prefer that we call them “drinks” because to call them milk implies they have the same nutrient composition as milk. This is going to be an interesting policy debate.

Dr. Macrina: I’m undecided. How about peanut butter? Butter is a dairy product but peanut butter is not. There are all kinds of spreads that we call butter. I think the consumer understands peanut butter doesn’t come from a cow. By the same token, I think consumers understand that soy milk comes from soybeans. I also understand that using the term “milk” might imply a certain nutritional profile so … I guess I’m not really sure where I stand on this.

Dr. German: I have a scientific conviction that vocabulary matters and that the imperative to develop accurate terminology for our understanding of the world around us is as vital as making scientific discoveries in the first place. I won’t dwell on the political implications of over-simplifying agriculture, food and health but certainly it is troubling that we conflate all “white liquids” as “milk.” So, in direct answer to the question, I feel strongly there need to be specific terms for human milk, bovine milk, sheep’s milk AND almond juice, soy juice, etc.

When it comes to making healthy food choices, whether it be dairy products or any other food, what’s your advice to consumers?

Dr. Weaver: Nutrition advice is mixed and comes at consumers in too frequent and complex doses. The best advice is for consumers to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This is the national policy with the most careful approach. Mandated by Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services convene experts every 5 years to review all related peer-reviewed evidence for the previous five years to give dietary guidance.

Related topics have been extensively gleaned from the literature, graded for quality and consistency, and summarized. The experts review the evidence and come to a consensus vote for each and every recommendation that is made. Using this information, laws are created that all government-funded nutrition programs must follow, such as the school lunch program.

No other process matches this extensive evaluation. But some scientists express their own opinions and media cover individual studies. This can be confusing to the public if the message doesn’t agree with the Dietary Guidelines. So, some choose to ignore them.

Dr. German: In my professional opinion, the failure to educate students through K-12 about diet, food and health has been a major mistake and stands as one of modern society’s great blunders. As a result, some consumers today have a discouraging misunderstanding of how diet relates to health. Individual foods are not the secret to health. Diet in its totality is what matters. Many consumers have been led to the impression that individual foods have almost magical properties and can cure all of the ills of the rest of their diet and lifestyle. We can debate how this impression developed, nonetheless it is just wrong. Hence, any beverage option should be viewed as a part of an overall diet for each individual in the context of their overall health, taking age, activity, tolerances and allergies into consideration.

Read Related Article: Plant-Based Milk vs. Cow’s Milk: What’s the Difference?

Should plant-based drinks be labeled as milk?

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  • Kari Crawford

    Well, I do believe that if almond milk was called nut juice, most would not be inclined to drink it, lol.

  • Ag-West Bio

    Like so much of what’s happening in the food industry, it’s all about marketing. Trying to get consumers to buy this product instead of that one. Funny though, we have called the fluid in a coconut ‘milk’ for ages, so I don’t know if it matters that much.

  • expat

    we wouldn’t be having this debate if it was not hurting someone pocketbook. Dairy farmers are up against a growing marketing push for alternative and more profitable products. And while I’m vegan for many years, the profitability of plant based ‘milk’ will determine who shouts loudest and who wins. From a science perspective, milk is from an animal source, period. Same with meat.

  • Christine Campbell

    Dr. German has a very good point in that our vernacular matters. In that vein, though, I think we need to pull the matter back even further. “Milk” for human consumption should rightly be referring to human milk. When speaking of bovine milk, we should be accurately calling it “cow’s milk.” If the argument is that calling a product “almond milk” or “soy milk” is confusing to the consumer, then the standard should be upheld consistently. That said, colloquially, people understand that the almond did not lactate to make almond “milk.” We also should understand that cow’s milk is not perfectly blended for human consumption, either. It IS perfectly blended for calf consumption. Making the argument against calling alternatives “milk” a nutritional argument makes me think that we should be emphatic in our vernacular that COW’S milk is sold in supermarkets- they should not be allowed to label it simply “milk” because the nutritional balance and source mean that it is not truly “milk” in human terms. Additionally, if the public can’t be trusted to understand that almond or soy or hemp or rice milk is not mammalian in source, they certainly can’t be trusted to understand that a cow and a human female are not the same.